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Can You Spare Some Air?

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Undersea divers (l–r) Scott Pitkethy, Greg Hamman, and Ron Maynard in Fiji. Photo by Josh Deerman.
Undersea divers (l–r) Scott Pitkethy, Greg Hamman, and Ron Maynard in Fiji. Photo by Josh Deerman.

Can You Spare Some Air? by Dick Dace One of the first things a diver learns is to never dive alone. Every tank has two regulators in case something goes wrong. Diving is a dangerous sport, and there are no shortcuts when it comes to safety. Make a plan. Dive the plan. And always dive with a buddy. So what is a single gay diver without a buddy to do? Call Greg Hamman. “Undersea Expeditions is an alternative to traveling by oneself,” Hamman explains. “We offer single divers the option of a roommate-matching service, so they don’t have to pay the ‘single upcharge,’ and we welcome non-diving gay or gay-friendly friends and partners. We host women-only, men-only, and mixed trips around the world, and have a great time.” Being a gentle giant of linebacker bear beef, when Hamman makes that claim you can easily believe it. His big-brother/protector demeanor is so sincere that it’s clear clients are in for a fun trip, and a safe one. Hamman is obviously a man who knows what he’s doing—an old salt who has happily drunk the tropical Kool-Aid and is more than ready to baptize you in it.

The rare and elusive blue toad fish. Photo by Tommy Todd.
The rare and elusive blue toad fish. Photo by Tommy Todd.

“Traveling together also provides all of us with a safer experience where diving may be challenging, or where one would not likely travel alone,” Hamman adds. Hamman began diving in 1996 and became a scuba instructor in Australia in 2004, specializing in teaching buoyancy skills in one-on-one training sessions. He began to dream of a life beyond selling software soon after discovering Undersea Expeditions. “I dove with them in Roatan and Palau, and soon became good friends with owner Chris Winkle, who created Undersea Expeditions in response to the homophobia he experienced with other groups.”

Over the years, Winkle became Hamman’s mentor, offering excellent career advice. “In 2004, like Victor Kiam, the man who said he liked Remington razors so much that he bought the company, I bought Undersea Expeditions because I loved it so much. It’s a full-service, professional gay travel agency with a focus on diving. This is what I want to do the rest of my life—make people happy while diving.” With an average eighty percent return rate, happy is almost an understatement. “We help many groups around the world book trips,” Hamman explains, “by negotiating with travel destinations to ensure a welcoming and fun adventure for all.” Hamman has honed his craft with homo-tourist-friendly precision.

Before he chooses a hotel, dive shop, or live-aboard ship, he has a conversation with the general managers and owners to make sure their entire staff understands just who and what his groups are all about. “We don’t want someone asking ‘Where’s your wife?’ because it makes everyone uncomfortable. I want them to know that we are fun and sometimes flirty, and not your typical group.” After twenty-two years in business, destinations seeking gay tourists are contacting him in droves. His response is polite but businesslike. “That would be great,” he says to them. “Tell me, what is it about your hotel/dive club/destination that makes it appealing to gay travelers?” After a stumbling silence, the replies are eye-rollingly predictable.

“Unfortunately, they often don’t know anything about the gay adventure traveler other than their reputation for [having lots of] disposable income.” For the Undersea Expeditions Cinco de Mayo 2013 Dive Trip, Hamman chose Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan coast that has been famous for diving since French oceanographer Jacques-Ives Cousteau discovered the Palancar Reef in 1954. Prior to that, Cozumel (or Cuzamil in Mayan, meaning “land of the swallows”) was known as Mexico’s largest Caribbean island and the sanctuary of the Mayan goddess of fertility, Ixchel—making it a major destination for religious pilgrimages. Today, divers from around the world can be found playing on both sides of the ocean’s surface. Hamman also chose the Occidental Grand, a Mexican five-star all-inclusive hotel, located about twelve miles from downtown Cozumel. It is in the middle of a lush green tropical garden, complete with two pools and four restaurants, one right on the beach and three by reservation only. There is also the requisite dive shop and the not-so-usual resident iguanas that are (trust me) not pets!

Since I was traveling alone, Hamman matched me with a roommate who also became my dive buddy. Tommy Wilburn, who has more than seven hundred dives under his weight belt, is a certified master diver and a rescue instructor—the perfect dive buddy for anyone. Hamman arranged for our group of thirty divers to enjoy two morning dives for five days, with the option to add twilight and night dives. Our group was divided between two boats, the Dolphins and the Turtles. On our boat, we were split into two groups led by dive masters Osvaldo Herrera and Humberto Coot Poot, aka “Lobo.”

His humor and playful interaction with our group caused us to become quite fond of him. Between eleven drift dives in the national marine park, our dive master Herrera guided us from Palancar Reef and Shallows to the French Lady and Columbia Reef, where we saw swimming and sleeping nurse sharks, barracudas, families of giant lobsters (some up to fifteen pounds) hiding in their shallow caves, six-foot-wide stingrays, nine-foot-long sleeping eels, and thousands of Technicolor fish, straight from Disney central casting, that seemed to glow in the bright sunlight-diffused sea.

While we all knew that Cozumel was famous for its drift diving, it was a new experience for most of us. And frankly, “drift diving,” which conjures up images of the gentle aquatic equivalent of a relaxing breeze, could not be more incorrectly named. With the current so strong, drift diving often makes you feel like storm-tossed flotsam or, as was often the case with me, like a stringless marionette having an undersea seizure. And I was not the only diver struggling with the ocean’s power. Sometimes it took all our strength to keep from being pushed into the reefs—and each other. They may call it drift diving, but I call it current surfing. One must grab the “wave,” hang on, and pray!

Add to that the thermoclines, where super-cold layers of water add a frigid accent to the currents, and each dive experience became a wild undersea roller-coaster ride. Herrera, who spent four years leading dives in Playa del Carmen before moving to Cozumel two years ago, has recently completed his teaching certification because he wants to share the beauty under the sea with everyone. “We all must follow the rules to protect the reef,” he said. As a single man, he dreams of traveling the world and one day getting married. His passion to protect the reef came through loud and clear one day, when he evicted a photographer who was destroying coral while trying to capture the perfect photo of one of Cozumel’s rare and elusive blue toad fish. “I wish I could ban that person from diving forever,” he said as he tried to control the anger in his voice. “This reef is our life! Respect it or get out!”

On another dive, while Herrera was guiding us through a tunnel of coral where sharks and lobsters slept, he spied a lion fish, an invasive non-native fish that is destroying the reef. He promptly speared it with his dive knife, chopped it up and fed it to an eel and its scavengers. While no sea creature will eat a live lion fish, there’s no lack of takers for dead ones.

The Occidental Grand, a fairly new hotel, was very beautiful, and its grounds were meticulously maintained by an army of gardeners. The walks were swept several times a day, and fresh hibiscus flowers were often left in our rooms, along with a veritable zoo of towel sculptures—an elephant, a swan, and even an octopus who took up half the bed. Having assumed these were all gifts from our maid, we later discovered that this cotton cloth origami was the work of one woman whose sole job was to create towel sculptures for every room on the property. While researching for this trip, I came across a report from Fox News Latino, which stated that since January 2, 2012, “Gay and Lesbian couples can now get legally wed in paradise. Same-sex marriage has become legally recognized in the Mexican Caribbean resort towns of Cancun and Cozumel by entering into a civil code marriage [sic].”

When I spoke with the Occidental Grand’s manager Ricardo Torres about gay guests getting married on his property, he countered emphatically. “Gay marriage is not legal here, despite what Fox News Latino has reported.” Then Torres’s tone softened slightly. “However, anyone can have their friendship or relationship blessed anywhere on the property, on the beach, or in one of our four restaurants, with a reception for up to 130 guests—but not by a Catholic priest.” Around six o’clock one evening, a few of us ran into each other on the walkway to the dinner buffet. One of our group, my new BFF Ida Franklin, turned to us and said that she could not face another buffet meal, and invited us to drive into the city and dine at Guido’s, her favorite Italian restaurant. Located on the main road near the cruise ship terminals, Guido’s dining room was in an open-air courtyard, cooled with a battalion of fans. The garlic bread was a very thin wood-fired pizza, just the right amount of charred blisters with succulent pillows of garlic-infused cheese. The Margherita pizza was perfection, as was the grilled filet with a side of risotto. The brick wood-fired oven redfish, gently brushed with olive oil served with al dente pasta, was dreamworthy.

Our wait staff was most helpful, friendly, and courteous. Our “dessert” on the way home, however, was another flavor entirely. On the way back to the hotel, we were pulled over by the police. One in our group spoke passable Spanish and acted as our de facto interpreter. The officer stated in Spanish that he needed to see Franklin’s driver’s license. The officer stepped away from the car for a moment, then came back to say that the license could be picked up the next day at the police station. When Franklin asked in English why we were stopped, the officer said, in English, “Speeding.” When she asked in English how much the fine was, he responded in perfect, un-accented English, “Forty bucks.” Franklin then asked in English if it was possible to pay the fine tonight. “Yes, but I cannot give you a receipt.”

If his English was any more perfect, we would have suspected he was from Des Moines. Naturally, we all chipped in to pay the fine and drove slowly back to the hotel while we all tried to figure out how to say “we just got rolled” in Spanish. We all decided to refer to the incident as DWT—driving while a tourist—and agreed we were victims of a forty-dollar shakedown. Next time, I’ll opt for the flan instead of the fine. When Hamman thanked all of us at our farewell dinner for attending and announced upcoming new trips—Thanksgiving week on the island of Saba, New Year’s aboard the Atlantis Azores in the Philippines, and a week in Belize next May—I became suddenly very hungry for another Undersea Expedition. And that was just fine by me.

Dick Dace was the guest of: • Undersea Expeditions, underseax.com • Occidental Grand, occidentalhotels.com/resort/occidental-grand-cozumel • Dive Palancar, divepalancarcozumel.com • Guido’s Restaurant Bar, guidoscozumel.com. Dick Dace “does lunch for a living” as the principal of The Epicurean Publicist.

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